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Scene & Heard

Saxophonist Melissa Aldana follows her ears

Katherine Taylor for the Boston Globe

Master classes by visiting artists are not unusual at Berklee College of Music — this, after all, is a school that boasts a star-studded faculty and scores of distinguished alumni. But there was extra buzz a couple of weeks ago when the 24-year-old tenor saxophonist Melissa Aldana returned to her alma mater, offering an afternoon session in the school’s Cafe 939 Red Room. In September, Aldana had won the coveted annual Thelonious Monk International Jazz Saxophone Competition — the first woman to win in an instrumental category — and the master class, combined with an evening show at the venue, had the air of a victory lap.

Aldana graduated from Berklee in 2009, but her connection to the school runs deep. Discovered in her hometown of Santiago, Chile, by Berklee faculty member Danilo Pérez, she has since moved to New York and recorded two CDs on Inner Circle, a label run by one of her former Berklee teachers, Greg Osby. Her prize includes not only a $25,000 scholarship but also a recording contract with the Concord Music Group. To the Berklee crowd, she’s a role model — as well as a potential employer.

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At the master class, one student piped up: “What kind of guitar player would you want in your band if you were to hire one?”

“I would want a guitar player who plays better than me,” Aldana answered. “That’s the best way to learn.”

“How do you practice?” asked another.

“I don’t really practice,” Aldana deadpanned, before giving a breakdown of her regimen: long tones with a tuner, slow scales (metronome 40), and transcribing solos with her horn, a phrase at a time, until she memorizes them and can play them perfectly. Her sources constitute a post-bop roll call of the tenor saxophone: Don Byas, Sonny Rollins, Joe Henderson, Michael Brecker, Joshua Redman, Mark Turner. “I think you have to know the history of the instrument,” she explained.

Another student: “Do you feel things were different for you as a woman?”

‘I’m looking for my own thing. It’s a process. I’m still really young, so I’m trying to get as much information as I can from what’s around me.’

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“There are a lot of guys around. But for me, I never felt the difference. I’m just another young player.”

Maybe Aldana didn’t feel the difference because growing up in Santiago she was taught by her father, Marco, himself an esteemed jazz saxophonist, starting when she was 6. She grew up playing with the guys in her father’s bands and, by 16, was headlining Club de Jazz de Santiago . And, also, as the Monk prize would indicate, she’s very good.

Aldana does not produce raw Coltrane-esque hurricanes of sound. She has a mostly vibrato-less attack, and likes to make glassy runs from the bottom of the horn to a pure altissimo. But that doesn’t mean her sound doesn’t have body. You could say that she descends from the Lester Young side of the tenor sax camp rather than the Coleman Hawkins side — from Young to Stan Getz and Warne Marsh and Turner. When Aldana plays a ballad standard — for instance, “I’ll Be Seeing You,” from her most recent CD, 2012’s “Second Cycle” — her sound is cultured, emotionally weighted, purposeful.

At the master class, she demonstrated her transcription technique, playing along with tracks from her iPod. When she played with Byas (“Back Home Again in Indiana”) or Harold Land (“Joy Spring”), the doubling was revealed only in the barest shadow of reverb. She played a lesser-known saxophonist, Rich Perry, on Charlie Parker’s “Billie’s Bounce.” Afterward, she said to the students, “The way he plays each note is really special, don’t you think so?”

During the master class and at the evening show (part of the series “The Checkout — Live at Berklee,” webcast by New York’s WBGO-FM and archived at www.npr.org), Aldana was joined by her Crash Trio: bassist (as well as fellow Chilean and Berklee grad) Pablo Menares and the esteemed Cuban drummer Francisco Mela. In their performance, the Crash Trio moved through alternating sections of Afro-Latin grooves, straight-ahead swing, and out-of-tempo exploration. Aldana’s solos made ready reference to Turner — both with her control of that clarinet-quality altissimo and her chromatic excursions. But every solo felt personal — in the way an abstract run would break for an aside of funky riffs, or in the way Aldana would climb to the top of her altissimo and stay there, holding a final note on a softly fading vibrato.

Aldana says she wants her ear transcriptions to produce the exact sound of her models, so that she can grasp how and why they made their musical choices. But she doesn’t worry about losing her own identity. “I am really clear that I’m looking for my own thing,” she said on the phone from New York after her Berklee appearance. “It’s a process. I’m still really young, so I’m trying to get as much information as I can from what’s around me.”

BONUS TRACKS

The Spanish singer, comedian, and ’70s TV star María del Rosario Mercedes Pilar Martínez Molina Baeza — better known as Charo — shows off her considerable skills as a flamenco guitarist at Scullers tonight and tomorrow (and we’re guessing she’ll tell a few jokes and sing as well). . . . Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra play Marsalis’s choral piece, “Abyssinian Mass,” Sunday at Symphony Hall (story, Page 29). After that, you can go to the Berklee Performance Center to catch Madeleine Peyroux performing tracks from her most recent album, “The Blue Room.” . . . On Nov. 5, Ran Blake and the students and faculty of New England Conservatory play their ninth annual Halloween-season film noir concert, this year focusing on Otto Preminger’s “Laura.” . . . Saxophonist Joshua Redman and his mighty quartet play Berklee on Nov. 8. And singer Cécile McLorin Salvant, following the release of one of the most celebrated CDs of the year, “WomanChild,” comes to the Regattabar Nov. 15.

Jon Garelick can be reached at jon.garelick4
@gmail.com
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